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Local man, top auctioneer and leader of New Zealand Bloodstock, retires

The following accolade of Joe Walls appeared in the New Zealand Herald in early June as part of a feature article by Michele Hewitt.
 |  Pauline Stewart  | 

Joe Walls on the rostrum for the final time as auctioneer at Karaka 2017; the statue of Sir Tristram and auctioneers gavel are displayed proudly in the foyer of Joe and Wendy’s home in Whitianga.

“Distinguished New Zealand thoroughbred industry leader, Joe Walls (MNZM) has retired from his role as Chairman of the New Zealand Bloodstock Board of Directors, bringing to a close his illustrious tenure with the auction house that spanned more than five decades.

“Joe started with the company in 1972, known as Wright Stephenson and as a world regarded top auctioneer, led the auctioneering team from the late ‘80s through to 2017. He steered the business as Managing Director of Wrightson Bloodstock from1993 through to 2000, before presiding as Chairman from 2006 through to 2024.

“New Zealand Bloodstock principal, Sir Peter Vela will now step into the role of Chairman after working closely alongside Joe for many years.”

Joe Walls is a local. He lives in Whitianga with his wife, Wendy. They love their home on Buffalo Beach Road and Joe has conducted his work from Whitianga for the past several years, travelling many kilometres to and from Karaka.

From 2002 to 2005, Joe also served as Chairman of New Zealand Thoroughbred Marketing, he was on the Board of New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing from 2011 to 2014 and, in 2018, he was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the horse racing industry.

The Informer spent some time with Joe and Wendy talking about how his life moved to being a world top auctioneer and a renowned expert on thoroughbred horses.

I read to Joe from the feature article about him

“Joe was revered for his command of the rostrum, the flair and assuredness with which he wielded the gavel to navigate the course of a Sale was unrivalled. He was a master amidst the pace and pressure of high-stakes trading in the sales ring. Joe’s wit was quick, and his decisions were respected.”

He brushes away the accolades. “When I was a kid, I used to sing. I liked singing and I went into local operatic productions. I was never too worried about getting up and singing. I got used to doing things in front of people. I enjoyed it. I didn’t even mind when my parents would ask me to sing a song for visitors.”

ARE YOU READY TO SELL SOME HORSES

Joe recounts that one day after he had joined Wright Stephenson, as it was known then, one of the guys suggested to him, ‘Why don’t you think about becoming an auctioneer? Go down to the local stockyards and start selling a cow, or a pig, anything.” Then later, the same guy suggested, “Are you ready to sell some horses?  Joe had a go at that and when he had done the trial auction, the same person said to Joe, “You will make it as an auctioneer.” Joe was only 22.

“Auctioneering is theatre,” says Joe.

“You have to make something out of nothing. You have to make a story and get the bids going and get the audience with you. You have to get some excitement into it. I went to so many places being an auctioneer. I was invited to sell horses in other countries – in South Africa. I went to the most exotic places – once selling the finest thoroughbreds in the foyer of a hotel. I sold often on the Gold Coast, Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne. I was at Ascot with the Queen’s horses. There everyone wears a top hat and waistcoat. The most glamorous part is the travel and visiting some of the major studs and stables in Europe for importation back to New Zealand. That was exciting. It was good for me and good for the company.

“There is a lot of pressure sometimes. You have two and a half minutes to sell somebody’s livelihood. They are not always rich people. That two and half minutes in the ring can mean everything. Sometimes, we would sell 35 in an hour.

“I got very keen on racehorse breeding. I trained myself to remember breeding – I could remember four generations of the breeding of a thoroughbred in the middle of an auction.

I would see a horse in the paddock and I could tell where it came from – all the characteristics that have been passed down.”

“I haven’t forgotten my early days,” says Joe. “There was a guy called Peter Kelly. He was an inspiration for me. He was the doyen of race callers and auctioneers in the 60s and 70s. I tried to emulate him. Some would say to me,” You sound like Peter Kelly.”

“People practise by listening to you and they get better at their patter,” says Joe. “A couple of times I have walked in and thought, “That sounds like me.”

“Many good auctioneers who are out there selling horses anywhere in the world have been trained in NZ or been trained or associated with New Zealand bloodstock. There has been a long line of good auctioneers and the young ones have based their ability on someone in front of them.

I sold horses right up to the time of retiring from auctioneering. I was asked why I was giving up. Well, I may have been good at it, but I could not remember the split-second things.”

More of the Herald feature article on Joe.

“Joe Walls is a great judge of a horse. Joe’s exceptional eye has been relied upon by many an astute investor when making critical bloodstock selections. From domestic yearling purchases to assessing and importing international stallions and broodmares, the scale and impact of Joe’s bloodstock oeuvre on the New Zealand breeding industry cannot be overstated.”

Joe loved the journey

SIR TRISTRAM

“Well, I will never forget when I went with my friend Patrick Hogan and we found a horse called Sir Tristram. We made the decision to purchase that horse. It changed the landscape of the thoroughbred industry in New Zealand and put us on the international map. I was there when he did it.

“The racetrack proves you right or wrong and I have had some success at that.

The stakes are high when you get it right.”

The bloodstock industry has lost its relevance to people. Once every town had a racetrack. It was what people did – they went to the races. The people didn’t have to bet, but it was part of the New Zealand way.

When I first started, there was a lot of farmers who bred racehorses, more as a hobby. Some of the best racers were from farmers and sold in Australia, but when farming became a lot more competitive and the price of butterfat, farmers could no longer take the risk of running a few mares and keeping a racehorse. Syndication has become very big. Sometimes a person buys a horse and syndicates it amongst 35-40 people.”

In 2017, the late Sir Patrick Hogan reflected on the esteem in which Joe was held globally.

“The contribution that Joe has made to the New Zealand thoroughbred industry is enormous. Because of Joe’s charisma and reputation, he opened many, many doors for those of us that travelled the world doing business in the thoroughbred industry.

“I can’t think of anyone in the New Zealand thoroughbred industry that I would speak of as highly as I speak of Joe. He is recognised as one of the great auctioneers in the world.

It has been a pleasure both professionally and personally to have had Joe as part of the NZB family, and he has earned an honoured place in the company’s history.”

Joe thinks a quieter pace of life is calling.

“Wendy and I are looking forward to spending a bit more time to ourselves at the beach, although I do keep in touch with the business of horse racing and breeding daily and will continue to do so. It is hard to let go.

“One interesting thing about the people who are involved a lot with horses. They don’t bet. I don’t bet. From when I started out as a fresh-faced lad, I never, ever thought I would scale the heights that I did, travel the world as I did and make the friends that I did over the years. It has been a wonderful journey.”

Joe is looking forward to a quieter pace of life.